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SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
10/27/2007 09:45:00 PM

Halftime: Ohio State 17, Penn State 7

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – My Ohio State-Penn State prediction was 16-6. Both teams exceeded that by halftime.

I was impressed with how smoothly Todd Boeckman (11-of-17, 189 yards, two TDs) operated the Buckeyes’ offense for most of the first half. His offensive line has given him great protection, and more often than not, he very calmly buys his time and finds the open man.

The key play of the half came on a third and 14 at Penn State’s 16 early in the second quarter. Ohio State had just been penalized for holding, and when the Buckeyes lined up in a bunched formation, it appeared they were setting up for a field-goal try. Instead, Boeckman play-faked, twirled, and threw a screen to Hartline on his left, who got a great block from Alex Boone and sprang 16 yards for the touchdown that put OSU up 17-7.

After playing so well most of the half, Boeckman very nearly let Penn State back in the game by throwing an interception right to LB Dan Connor late in the half. The crowd, treated to the first positive development since Penn State’s first-quarter touchdown drive, sprang to life. But in a bizarre decision by Joe Paterno and/or his staff, the Nittany Lions elected to punt when faced with a fourth and 2 at the Buckeyes’ 38 with about two minutes left.

And that’s where things stand now.

I’d expect OSU to stick to a similar offensive game-plan in the second half, mixing a steady dose of Chris Wells (15 carries, 68 yards) with some well-placed play-actions or downfield throws by Boeckman. Penn State needs to start stuffing Wells to set up some third-and-longs, get more pressure on Boeckman (so far they’ve had almost none), and, of course, get something going on offense. So far they’ve barely had the ball long enough to do so.

Check back after the game for a full Inside College Football column from Beaver Stadium.
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10/27/2007 08:02:00 PM

Saturday Observations, Part III: 'The Scene'

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Ladies and gentlemen, I simply have to share with you the scene I’m witnessing here.

I’ve been in my share of loud stadiums (Florida, LSU), I’ve seen my share of pageantry (Notre Dame, Ohio State) and beautiful backdrops (Air Force). I can honestly say I’ve never experienced as much electricity in a stadium as I have these last few moments before kickoff of tonight’s Ohio State-Penn State game.

The “White Out”-ed student section was full nearly an hour before kickoff, the entire 107,000 in place by 7:45. With “The Pennsylvania State University” awning facing me and miles and miles of cars and RVs out the window behind me, with flashbulbs popping everywhere and some well-chosen tunes (from Living on A Prayer to Don’t Stop Believing -- did JoePa really approve this playlist?) pumping up the crowd, the anticipation just keeps building and building.

The scoreboard to my left currently scrawls: “Welcome to the Greatest Show in College Football,” as a Penn State highlight reel plays on the video board. And meanwhile, I’m enjoying a cup of ice cream straight from the famous Penn State Creamery here in the press box.

Now, the Nittany Lion mascot is standing at midfield leading alternating cheers from each section as the band begins to march on the field. I can’t even imagine what’s going to happen when actual players run on to the field.

So that’s the scene here in Happy Valley as Paterno’s team gets ready for its second-ever home game against a No. 1 team. Three-and-a-half hours from now, the Buckeyes are either going to head back to Columbus having endured one heck of a road test -- or having suffered their first blemish.
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10/27/2007 07:36:00 PM

Saturday Observations, Part II

Tim Tebow
Playing with a sore shoulder, Florida QB Tim Tebow came back down to Earth against Georgia.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- It turns out Tim Tebow is in fact human. And bye weeks do in fact provide an advantage -- at least in the Florida-Georgia rivalry.

The Dawgs finally turned the tables on their longtime tormentors Saturday, and it might not be a coincidence that, unlike the previous 14 years, when Florida came into the annual showdown off a bye week and won 13 of them, this time Georgia was the rested team. The Dawgs were hungrier (How about that full-team celebration after the first touchdown?), they were more physical (see Knosown Moreno’s 33 carries for 188 yards and three scores) and they looked better prepared.

Meanwhile, Florida didn't share the same fire, especially with its superhuman quarterback nursing a shoulder injury. With the Gators’ coaches apparently reluctant to run Tebow much at all (whereas he carried 20 times just last week) and Kestahn Moore sent to the bench after fumbling twice in the first half, the Gators’ offense was suddenly rendered very one-dimensional. If not for Percy Harvin’s speed bursts, this could very easily have been a blowout.

And that’s because Florida’s defense -- its lingering question mark all season -- flat-out stunk. They couldn’t stop Moreno, and Georgia QB Matthew Stafford was able to find open receivers time after time. As a result, not only are the 5-3 Gators’ hopes of returning to the national championship mix officially shot, they’re suddenly a longshot to even return to Atlanta. Meanwhile, the same Georgia team (7-2, 4-2 SEC) that looked woeful against Tennessee just three weeks ago is now deadlocked with South Carolina atop the SEC East. Florida? Kentucky? Not so much.

And then there are the Heisman implications. In light of Matt Ryan’s coming-out party the other night, Tebow and Andre Woodson sure picked the wrong week to lay an egg.

I no longer pretend to know how strong the SEC is or isn’t (other than Florida isn’t what it was cracked up to be), but it’s certainly tops in the country in one department: unpredictability.

• Meanwhile, I have to give a ton of props to my Atlanta friend and terminally delusional Georgia fan, Jonathan, who’d been predicting that result for months, swore by it even after the Dawgs’ early struggles and told me a few days ago not a single one of his Georgia friends agreed with him. Hopefully he’s not too inebriated by now to read this.

• SI.com’s Arash Markazi is in Eugene to chronicle the USC-Oregon game, so I’ll defer to him for analysis of that one, but the Trojans actually impressed more in defeat than they have in most of their victories this season. Holding the Ducks’ PlayStation offense to 335 yards is pretty phenomenal, and though QB Mark Sanchez will likely take flak for his interception at the end, under the circumstances, it’s pretty remarkable he was even in a position to possibly send the game to overtime.

The Trojans’ Rose Bowl hopes are likely shot, but their prospects for the rest of the season aren’t nearly as bleak as they seemed after Stanford and Arizona.

• In yet another development we never would have dreamed possible a couple of months ago, 7-1 UConn is suddenly the team to beat in the Big East. I’ll admit it, I hadn’t taken the Huskies particularly seriously to this point, but not only is Randy Edsall’s team alone in first following Saturday’s 22-15 win over USF (making the Bulls the second straight No. 2 team to not only lose, but lose again the following week, like Cal did), they’re playing absolutely lights out on defense.

The Huskies entered the game third in the country in scoring defense (12.7 points per game), sixth in total defense (272.3 yards per game). Last week, they held Brian Brohm to his lowest production of the season by far; this week, they did get burned on the ground by Bulls QB Matt Grothe (25 carries, 146 yards) but they picked him twice and, most importantly, allowed just one touchdown all day.

Remember when Connecticut and Kansas were basketball schools?

• Wow, Jamaal Charles -- where did that come from? With previously reeling Nebraska threatening to pull an absolute stunner in Austin, going up 17-3 early in the third quarter, Texas’ junior running back caught fire. Touchdown runs of 25, 86 and 40 yards gave the ‘Horns a 28-25 victory and gave Charles a 290-yard night.

Charles has flashed star potential since the start of his freshman year, but never anything like that.

• Finally, I know I’ve sworn off Clemson before -- many, many times -- but I do believe the Tigers will pose the biggest remaining threat to Boston College’s run at an undefeated season. Unlike most of the ACC’s offensively challenged teams, the Tigers do have James Davis and C.J. Spiller, both of whom broke 100 against Maryland on Saturday.

Clemson hosts Boston College on Nov. 17. We’ll know this is officially the season from another dimension if that game winds up holding more implications than the Ohio State-Michigan tilt being played that same day.
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10/27/2007 03:56:00 PM

Saturday Observations, Part I

Pat White
West Virginia QB Pat White ran for 156 yards and a touchdown and threw for 144.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- You may have forgotten about them following their late-September loss to USF, but Pat White and Steve Slaton are still doing their thing, folks -- and West Virginia is right back in the thick of the national-title hunt.

The Mountaineers, 7-1 and sixth in last week’s BCS standings, made that abundantly clear Saturday by going to Piscataway and running all over 5-2 Rutgers. West Virginia fans had to be thrilled to see Slaton -- largely MIA the past month, leading some to question whether he’s “lost a step” -- burst for gains of 51 and 38 yards and three TDs. But what really stands out right now about the Mountaineers’ is their defense. Relatively weak a year ago, West Virginia entered Saturday’s game fourth in the nation in total defense and held the Scarlet Knight to 314 total yards.

The strange thing is.,West Virginia may be in better shape nationally right now than in the Big East. Depending on the result of the USF-UConn game later today, the Mountaineers will either be tied for first with the Bulls (which hold the head-to-head tiebreaker) or remain a game behind the Huskies (2-0 in league play so far).

• You know what else speaks well for West Virginia? Mississippi State beating Kentucky. Last week, the Mountaineers jumped to a 31-0 lead on the Bulldogs barely a few minutes into the second quarter of the teams’ game en route to an easy win. Saturday, those same Bulldogs did what LSU and Florida could not: Shut down Wildcats QB Andre Woodson (230 yards, two touchdowns, three interceptions) in a surprising 31-14 win.

Mississippi State (5-4) -- which previously knocked off ranked Auburn -- has taken some huge steps in this, Sylvester Croom’s fourth season in Starkville, and now has a realistic shot at going bowling. The Bulldogs have a legitimately fast, SEC defense -- just not fast enough to stop White and Slaton.

• Colorado (5-4) is clearly a much-improved team in the second year of the Dan Hawkins era -- but boy, are they all over the map. After losing to Arizona State and Florida State early, the Buffs stunned top-five Oklahoma. After routing Baylor, CU then got crushed at Kansas State and lost 19-14 to undefeated Kansas. On Saturday, they walked into Lubbock and put the kibash on Texas Tech’s Air Raid offense, intercepting QB Graham Harrell four times (his second straight such debacle) in a 31-26 win.

It will be interesting to watch how the Big 12’s remaining cross-divisional games play out -- with Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma having now lost a combined four games to North division teams, this could very well be the year the North posts a winning record against the South.

• For the second straight year, it seems Indiana is stuck at the five-win plateau. Last year, their final season playing for the late Terry Hoeppner, the Hoosiers -- which haven’t played in a bowl game since 1993 -- won three Big Ten games and reached the 5-4 mark before losing their last three. This year’s IU squad, playing under interim coach Bill Lynch, stormed to a 5-1 start, but Saturday’s 33-3 loss to Wisconsin marked its third straight.

With games remaining against Ball State, Northwestern and Purdue, Indiana could still reach the postseason (which in this year’s Big Ten will likely require seven wins), but right now it’s looking very much like a repeat of the Antwaan Randle El years. Just like that dynamic, record-setting quarterback still was not enough to get the Hoosiers over the hump, current stars Kellen Lewis and James Hardy are extremely exciting players, but IU’s running game and defense aren’t yet up to their level.

• It’s pretty clear at this point that Wake Forest (6-2, 4-1 ACC) was no one-year wonder. Saturday’s 37-10 rout of North Carolina marked the Demon Deacons’ sixth straight win since losing their first two games to Boston College and Nebraska (the latter when QB Riley Skinner was out). They’d need undefeated BC to collapse in order to get back to the ACC title game, but they’ll almost certainly be back in the national rankings very soon, possibly tomorrow.

• Finally, forget everything I said earlier about the weather possibly affecting tonight’s Ohio State-Penn State showdown. After raining all day and night yesterday and looking threatening again this morning, the skies have cleared this afternoon to create the kind of cool, leafy, bucolic fall afternoons they use on college admissions brochures. The kids are throwing a football on the lawn of the fraternity house across the street from my hotel as I write this.

Time to head to the stadium.
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10/27/2007 01:18:00 PM

Scary Saturday in State College

Beaver Stadium
Penn State students have planned another "White Out" for Saturday night's game against No. 1 Ohio State.
Tom "Mo" Moschella/Icon SMI

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Well, Friday night in State College was … kind of scary. The Penn State student body -- in particular the females -- take Halloween pretty seriously. Walking up and down College Ave., the main drag of restaurants and bars adjacent to campus, one passed by every creative costume imaginable. I saw Marilyn Monroe. I saw Britney Spears. But mostly, I saw a whole bunch of Playboy-bunny mimics who used the holiday as an excuse to wear their lingerie in public.

Good times.

Throw in the rainy weather, a whole bunch of alcohol and the sound of someone starting a “WE ARE … PENN STATE” chant every seven seconds and you’ve got all the makings of a powder keg waiting to explode. No. 1 Ohio State will be walking into one seriously scary stadium Saturday night.

The nasty weather, by the way, could play a factor in many games played in the Eastern half of the United States today. On my TV now, West Virginia and Rutgers are playing under a heavy downpour. One would think that might work against the speedy Mountainers, but both Pat White and Steve Slaton have already run for touchdowns halfway through the first quarter.

Enjoy the games. I’ll now sit back and wait to see how exactly you guys segue this post -- one primarily about Halloween costumes and weather -- into yet another SEC vs. Big Ten argument.
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10/26/2007 01:46:00 AM

No. 1 Priority: Scouting Trip to State College

Penn State fans
It should be a pretty crazy Saturday night in State College.
David Bergman/SI
They are the two words that spell music to the ears of any seasoned college football fan.

Road trip!

I’ve stocked up on beverages. I’ve printed out my Mapquest directions. By the time you read this on Friday afternoon, I will have already hit the road. Destination: State College, Pa.

The objective of my journey is simple: To check out the nation’s purported No. 1 team, Ohio State, in its first legitimate challenge Saturday night at No. 24 Penn State. Granted, no one’s going to be confusing the Nittany Lions with LSU or Florida anytime soon, but considering how many highly rated teams have already lost this season to ostensibly inferior foes, the 8-0 Buckeyes can certainly gain some legitimacy if they’re able to handle not only the 6-2 Nittany Lions but the sure-to-be electrifying atmosphere at 109,000-seat Beaver Stadium (where the students are planning one of their ever-impressive “White Outs”).

While traveling to games around the country is part of my job, this particular assignment carries some personal significance. It’s been more than eight years since my only previous trip to Happy Valley, and it happened to be the first game I ever covered for SI.com: Penn State’s season-opening rout of fellow top-five foe Arizona in the 1999 Pigskin Classic. Barely a year out of college and completely naïve to the ins and outs of covering big-time college football, I made all kinds of rookie mistakes that weekend -- taking one of those terrifying puddle jumpers into the tiny State College airport (not even the opposing teams fly into State College); waiting too long to book a hotel and ending up an hour away in Altoona; getting stuck in a horrific traffic jam on my way to the stadium; but most of all, not reserving enough time beforehand to soak up the atmosphere in State College.

Eight years later, I’ve long since learned the errors of my ways. First of all, there’s no need for planes now that I live just a four-hour drive away in New York City. This time, I’m staying in State College itself, and this time, I’m making sure to get there plenty early enough to stroll College Avenue, and enjoy the type of hospitality I’ve experienced everywhere from Auburn to Ann Arbor these past eight years. If you happen to be in town for the game, maybe I’ll run into you. Just do me a favor and refrain from asking that ubiquitous question: So … what’s your prediction?

While I had to make one for the Weekend Pickoff, the honest answer is: I have no clue. While I’m fairly certain Ohio State’s defense is as good as advertised, we’ve yet to see the Todd Boeckman/Beanie Wells/Brian Bobiskie-era offense face a top-notch defense. Two years ago in this game, Paul Posluszny and the Nittany Lions absolutely stymied Troy Smith and the Buckeyes in a hard-earned 17-10 victory (the two teams wound up finishing No. 3 and 4 in the country that season). This year’s Dan Connor-led PSU defense has not been nearly as dominant (see last week’s 36-31 shootout with Indiana), but they still rank among the nation’s top-10 units, and they’re certainly capable of making Boeckman’s night difficult.

The bigger question is, which Penn State offense will show up: The one that looked flat-out inept earlier in the season in losses at Michigan and Illinois, or the new-and-improved version that’s lit up Iowa, Wisconsin and Indiana the past three weeks? This is where I think the Nittany Lions may be in trouble. While running backs Rodney Kinlaw and Evan Royster have certainly provided a spark these past few weeks, I find it hard to believe the oft-maligned Anthony Morelli has suddenly morphed into an All-Big Ten caliber quarterback. Realistically, both he and the running backs have benefited from facing some pretty average defenses. James Laurinaitis and the Buckeyes are unlikely to surrender too much yardage on the ground, which will put a lot of pressure on the shoulders of Morelli -- which, in the past, has usually led to bad things for both him and the Nittany Lions.

But what do I know? I thought that suspect No. 2 team Boston College was going to get taken to the woodshed at Virginia Tech on Thursday night -- and for about the first 57 minutes, my instinct was correct. But suddenly Matt Ryan put on his Doug Flutie mask and engineered one of the most impressive, last-minute comebacks all season, capped off by a dazzling, scrambling, 24-yard touchdown pass that we’ll be seeing endless clips of the rest of the season.

Now, if you watched the game in its entirety, you undoubtedly came away thinking one thing: If BC is truly the second-best team in the country, than LSU might as well be the New England Patriots. The same Hokies defense that dominated Ryan and the Eagles so thoroughly for most of the night was shredded by the Tigers for nearly 600 yards during my trip to Baton Rouge earlier this season. The difference between SEC and ACC football this season is far greater than just a couple of letters.

But the fact is, 8-0 BC won the game -- which is more than we can say of previous No. 2 teams USC (against Stanford), Cal (against Oregon State) and South Florida (against Rutgers). Win five more just like it, and the Eagles -- whether you believe in them or not -- will almost certainly play for the national championship.

And so, too, may Ohio State if it continues to take care of business, starting Saturday night. It’s starting to get pretty serious out there, people. Good thing I scheduled this trip.
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10/21/2007 06:24:00 PM

Five Things We Learned This Weekend

Les Miles
Kentucky's Andre Woodson threw for 415 yards and five touchdowns but lost his duel with Florida's Tim Tebow.
Jim Owens/Icon SMI

1) That two of your Heisman finalists played in Lexington yesterday. Much like the national title race, sorting through the Heisman candidates this season has often felt like a process of elimination. Colt Brennan got hurt. Ray Rice struggled. DeSean Jackson disappeared. Brian Brohm's team went in the toilet. Darren McFadden's team became irrelevant. One by one, the popular preseason candidates exposed their blemishes (some by no fault of their own) to the point where filling out my top-five list last week for the HeismanPundit.com straw poll was nearly as difficult as my past few AP ballots.

Which is why watching Saturday's Florida-Kentucky shootout was not only entertaining but enlightening, providing some much-needed clarity. In what has been a rare occasion this season, two transcendent players each delivered the type of jaw-dropping performances on which Heisman seasons are built. It's nowhere near time to project a winner (as so many of us had already done for Troy Smith by this point last season), but I do think it's safe to predict that, barring injury or a total collapse by one or the other, Tim Tebow and Andre Woodson will be in New York the second Saturday of December. Tebow currently holds the advantage, having beaten Woodson head-to-head and having now delivered three of the most impressive individual performances all season (against Tennessee, LSU and Kentucky). Come December, however, voters may wind up siding with Woodson because he A) beat LSU (if the Tigers remain in the national title mix until the end) and B) has helped elevate a longtime doormat, whereas Tebow took over the reins of the defending national champs.

There are no shortage of other factors that will come into play as well (most notably, Tebow and Woodson would likely need to keep their teams in SEC title contention until the end), and the pair certainly aren't the only worthy candidates out there. Despite missing Saturday night's Illinois game, Mike Hart still has ample opportunity to rise to the top, especially if he were to go off on No. 1 Ohio State in the season finale. And Boston College QB Matt Ryan is already high on a lot of lists heading into a golden showcase opportunity Thursday night at Virginia Tech. If someone winds up outshining current leader Tebow, so be it -- so long as age is not the deciding factor. It's 2007, people. In an age when Vanderbilt has a better football program than Notre Dame, an underclassman should certainly be able to win the Heisman Trophy.

2) That reports of the Pac-10's ascendancy were premature. I wrote it, as did so many others. Through the first month of the season, no conference had done more to distinguish itself than the Pac-10, with rousing non-conference wins by Cal (over Tennessee), Oregon (over Michigan), Washington (over Boise State) and USC (over Nebraska). In the weeks since, however, we learned that shredding Tennessee's defense, as Cal did, isn't particularly difficult (ask Alabama) and that Nebraska is closer to No. 120 than No. 20. The Trojans wound up losing to Stanford, the 2-5 Huskies haven't won since that Boise State game, and the Bears have now lost consecutive games to Oregon State (itself a 34-3 loser to Cincinnati) and UCLA (44-6 loss to Utah, only team this season to lose to Notre Dame).

Obviously, it doesn't speak particularly well of our West Coast friends that, at the near-halfway point of the conference season, those same Bruins are tied for first at 4-0 in the Pac-10. Its co-leader, 7-0 Arizona State, had been looking toward Saturday's home date with Cal as chance to finally prove its worthiness, but suddenly everybody's beating Cal. Still, this coming weekend will be a very interesting one for the conference. In addition to Cal-ASU, No. 9 USC visits No. 5 Oregon in a game with serious BCS implications. The Ducks, despite losing that home game to Cal, remain the league's most viable national title contender. That Michigan beatdown looks better and better with each subsequent Wolverines victory. But Oregon finds itself having to reinvent the nation's No. 2 offense on the fly after losing a bevy of key personnel (three receivers, plus No. 2 tailback Jeremiah Johnson). They did more than fine against Washington, riding RB Jonathan Stewart to 55 points, but USC brings a far more challenging defense.

The previously struggling Trojans, meanwhile, turned in their crispest offensive performance of the season at Notre Dame, with QB Mark Sanchez shining in his second career start, but how much can we really read into performances against the Irish this season? (Other than the fact USC obviously fared far better than its cross-town rival ... you know, the one leading the conference). Right now, Oregon and ASU seem like the league's teams to beat; by this time next week, however, it could be back to USC and UCLA. Think about how crazy that would have sounded just two weeks ago.

3)That USF is not-yet-ready-for-primetime. Last Sunday, I was one of the 11 AP voters to elevate the 11-year-old South Florida Bulls to No. 1 in the AP rankings -- yet even then I could see Thursday night's Rutgers upset coming from 33 miles away (the distance from Manhattan to Piscataway). Just four days after debuting at No. 2 in the BCS standings, the young Bulls would not only be facing the pressure of trying to prove themselves to a nation full of newfound skeptics, but they'd have to do so in a sold-out Thursday night road game against the one team in their conference that's caused them the biggest matchup problems in the past. (Specifically, one matchup: Physical RB Rice, he of the 202-yard day against USF's otherwise unmerciful run defense just a year earlier.) The fact is, USF's D is all about speed -- hence why they've performed so well against West Virginia -- whereas Rice and the Knights are all about power. Sure enough, Rice exploded for 189 yards and Rutgers pulled off a 30-27 win.

So why, might you ask, did I move the Bulls up to No. 1 if I already had such reservations about their ability to beat a 4-2 team? Well for one, as I said last week, we're supposed to vote based on past results, not predictions of the future. I could not have known at the time whether my instinct would prove true, whereas USF's resume at the time was undisputable. And secondly, as I wrote from Thursday night's game, is there really that big a difference between USF losing at Rutgers and LSU losing at Kentucky? Or Oklahoma losing at Colorado? These days, everybody's vulnerable. I happen to share Rice's opinion (expressed in that column) that the week-in, week-out difficulty in the Big East is not dramatically different than the SEC's or Big 12's. Preemptive note to the expected, indignant SEC fans: I am not saying the Big East is a "better" conference than yours; I'm saying that, just like there are almost no "weeks off" in your conference anymore, the Big East's schedule, albeit shorter, is similarly grueling due to that league's depth and balance. (In fact, it's arguably more difficult to run through the Big East undefeated now than it was in its previous configuration, which for the majority of its non-Michael Vick existence was basically Miami and the seven dwarfs).

All of that said, I'd be lying if I didn't say covering my first live USF game was a bit of letdown. While the Rice shredding was not entirely unexpected, the Bulls' offensive line made Rutgers' previously struggling defense look like an NFL team's. QB Matt Grothe, while obviously supremely talented, was far too reckless with the game on the line -- and then, with reporters waiting outside the locker room afterward, refused to conduct a single interview. While I'm told that's not entirely uncommon in MLB clubhouses or NFL locker rooms, in nearly a decade in this business, I've never encountered that from a high-profile college athlete (except in instances where school officials or coaches purposefully shielded the player.) But alas, how could Grothe have known? He and his teammates are completely new to this kind of stuff -- to the point where Thursday night marked the first time in its young history than an opposing team's fans stormed the field after beating USF. The Bulls should certainly hope it's not the last time -- that is, if they're planning on making such big games a regular occurrence.

4) That Notre Dame's woes likely aren't over yet. Following the Irish's 38-0 loss Saturday to rival and traditional measuring stick USC on Saturday, Charlie Weis was asked whether his team had hit rock bottom. His responded in part, "People better enjoy [it] now, have their fun now." Was Weis referring to the people who've already had their way with ND -– or issuing an invitation to others?

When the Irish's lopsided losses initially started piling up in September, one could look at their schedule and reasonably conclude that, even if Weis' team started an unthinkable 0-8 (thanks to Dorrell, they made it through at 1-7), they could at least count on four wins at the end. At this point, however, that no longer seems like a given, and in fact none ND's four remaining opponents –- Navy, Air Force, Duke and Stanford -- seem like all that much of an underdog anymore. The Midshipmen and Falcons are a combined 10-5. The Blue Devils, though 1-6, have a dangerous quarterback (sophomore Thaddeus Lewis, one spot below Ryan among NCAA pass efficiency leaders) and have been more competitive than the Irish (beating 5-3 Northwestern and playing the likes of Virginia, Wake Forest and Miami tough). And much-improved Stanford not only beat USC but improved to 2-3 in the Pac-10 with Saturday's comeback win over Arizona.

Of all the historic indignities Weis' team has accrued this season, losing to 4-3 Navy in two weeks would invariably represent the most galling yet. As has been well documented, ND currently holds an NCAA-record 43-game winning streak over the Midshipmen, having last lost to them in 1963 when Roger Staubach skippered Navy. Even as Paul Johnson's program has erased years of misery to reach bowl games the past four seasons has been unable to topple the Irish. This would certainly seem the year to do it, it's almost impossible to handicap how well an opponent will handle Navy's option attack. (So far this year, Navy has beaten Pittsburgh and Duke but been crushed by Rutgers and Wake Forest). Similarly, while Air Force has won five of its first six Mountain West games (including Saturdays win over Wyoming), the Falcons themselves lost to the Midshipmen. The guess here is that ND wins those but loses to the Blue Devils and Cardinal.

5) That Temple has found a home in the MAC. Lost in the wilderness, a program without a home after getting the boot from the Big East, long-hapless Temple went 1-22 the past two seasons while playing an often murderous, mercenary's schedule. In this, the Owls' first in the Mid-American Conference, however, Al Golden's team is currently enjoying its first three-game winning streak since 1990 –- and is sitting a half-game out of first in its new division (the MAC East).

Give oodles of credit to Golden, Temple's 38-year-old, second-year coach, whose relentless energy and enthusiasm since taking over Division I-A's biggest reclamation project reminds many of Rutgers' Greg Schiano. It takes a team with a sense of confidence to do what the Owls did Saturday, which was to overcome a second-quarter, season-ending injury to starting QB Adam DiMichele and hold off a late Miami of Ohio rally to beat the division leader, 24-17. This on the heels of previous close victories over Northern Illinois and Akron.

Note that the RedHawks (2003) and Zips (2005) have both won recent MAC championships, while the Huskies have been to bowl games two of the past three years. Not taking anything away from the Owls' accomplishments, but they seem to be joining the conference at a perfect time. For whatever reason (your theory is as good as mine), the MAC is really struggling right now. There was a time just four or five years ago when you could count on the league to produce at least a couple legitimate stars (Ben Roethlisberger, Byron Leftwich, et. al.) each season, not to mention pull off its share of BCS-conference upsets. But with the exception of Bowling Green and Kent State's early wins over Big Ten and Big 12 cellar-dwellers Minnesota (by Bowling Green) and Iowa State (by Kent State and Toledo), that hasn't been the case at all lately. The door is open for a rising program like Temple to become an immediate contender, which in turn should spur much-needed fan interest. Saturday's win drew 21,041 to the Linc, up from 15,629 for their first MAC home game against Buffalo.
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10/21/2007 01:35:00 AM

Saturday Observations, Part III

Les Miles
After his gutsy call Saturday night, one has to wonder if Les Miles (center) is a reckless mad man or a true genius?
Doug Benc/Getty Images

In this the craziest of college football seasons, Les Miles may just be the perfect protagonist. He is quickly establishing himself as the Dennis Hopper of college football -- reckless mad man, certifiable genius or both?

As the clock ticked below 10 seconds left in LSU’s third SEC thriller in as many weeks and QB Matt Flynn had yet to snap the ball, it appeared the Tigers might be about to pull a Cal -- would time run out before they could even attempt a game-winning field goal? Then it got even scarier. Flynn dropped back, cocked and sent the ball heaving skyward to the end zone. :08, :07, :06, :05 … What the heck are they doing???

But there was receiver Demetrius Byrd waiting to haul in the catch that would render that field-goal attempt irrelevant. LSU beats Auburn ... with one second to spare! Speaking to Holly Rowe afterward, Miles explained his latest baffling, yet successful gamble like it was nothing. “We wanted to take a shot at seven, and they hadn’t covered Byrd all night. We knew we’d have a chance to kick afterward.”

Were you worried about the clock running out on you, coach? “Absolutely not,” he replied. That makes one of us.

In a season where it’s tough to find even a single team one can feel confident in predicting will be playing Jan. 7, LSU still comes the closest -- and that’s saying something, considering the Tigers could very easily be on a three-game losing streak right now. That they survived the Florida/Kentucky/Auburn gauntlet with a single blemish is a testament to both their players’ talents and Miles’ seemingly absolute confidence in those players. (Or is it more a case of blind madness?)

Who knows whether LSU can survive the rest of its season unscathed (that trip to Tuscaloosa in two weeks suddenly carries far bigger stakes than beating an ex-coach). But with what is now a 4-1 record against top-20 foes, there’s no question they’re the most battle-tested squad in the land. They also received a significant boost Saturday: The return of top receiver Early Doucet.

You wouldn’t have known he was back in the first half, when Doucet produced no yardage and the Tigers fell behind 17-7. But Doucet was seemingly everywhere in the second half, catching seven passes for 93 yards as LSU’s passing attack awoke for the first time in a month.

Even that and 16 unanswered points almost wasn’t enough, however, after Auburn drove 82 yards to go ahead 24-23 with 3:35 remaining. But in one of those championship-team type moments (of which LSU has enjoyed a couple now), Flynn drove his team back down the field and tossed that game-winning 22-yard touchdown throw to Byrd.

With my No. 1 team from last week, USF, going down to Rutgers on Thursday, I’ll have no reservations whatsoever moving the Tigers up to replace the Bulls this week. Whether it’s been the doings of a genius or a mad man, they’ve certainly earned it.

• Say what you want about this year’s Big Ten, but Michigan still deserves some serious props for the way it won Saturday night’s game at Illinois. Talk about having everything stacked against you -- Mike Hart’s standing on the sideline in street clothes, Chad Henne misses about a quarter-and-a-half to injury and they were facing exactly the type of mobile quarterbacks who’ve given them so much trouble in the past.

But Henne was as hot as I’ve ever seen him when he did play. Even more impressively, the Wolverines’ oft-maligned defense suffocated Illini QBs Juice Williams and Eddie McGee and held RB Rashard Mendenhall below 100 yards. Illinois barely cracked 250 yards of offense on the night.

Ohio State may be on top of the national rankings, but I’m starting to think the brewing Buckeyes/Wolverines deadlock atop the Big Ten standings may continue right up through Nov. 17.

• For the first time this season, no undefeated teams lost Saturday. Of course, only two of them played. Kansas was one of them, improving to 7-0 with a nice road win at Colorado. Sophomore QB Todd Reesing turned in another methodical performance, going 20-for-29 for 153 yards and a touchdown while also rushing for 84 yards on seven carries.

I have no idea how good the Jayhawks truly are, but I do know this: There’s a halfway decent chance at this point that Kansas -- which misses Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech – will be 11-0 heading into a Thanksgiving-weekend showdown with Missouri. Raise your hand if you saw that one coming.

• With Oregon (6-1) now missing three of its top four receivers (in addition to the injured Brian Paysinger and Cameron Colvin, Derrick Jones was suspended this week), the Ducks turned to their running game in a big way against Washington. Star RB Jonathan Stewart carried 30 times for a career-high 252 yards and two touchdowns in a 55-34 victory. While the victory keeps Oregon in the thick of the Pac-10 race, it had to be disturbing to Ducks fans seeing Huskies QB Jake Locker (339 total yards, four TDs) slice and dice their defense. USC visits next week.

• Virginia (7-1) just keeps pulling out one dramatic win after another. The past two weeks required late Chris Gould field goals to survive Middle Tennessee and Connecticut. Saturday night, Mikell Simpson’s 1-yard touchdown plunge with 28 seconds left gave the Cavs an 18-17 win over Maryland to move to 4-0 in the ACC. The Wahoos sure seem like they’re walking a very thin plank -- but hey, they’re 7-1. Not too many people can say that at this point.

• Oklahoma State continues its recent tear, knocking off Kansas State 41-39 on a last-second Jason Ricks field goal. The Cowboys (5-3), seemingly down for the count early in the season following blowout losses to Georgia and Troy, have won four of five games since the infamous Bobby Reid column that set off Mike Gundy to remain tied for first in the Big 12 South with Oklahoma and Texas A&M.

Feel Good Story I: Colorado State finally snapped its 13-game losing streak, routing UNLV 48-23. It’s been a little sad watching Rams icon Sonny Lubick’s once-formidable program plummet like it has the past couple years.

Feel Good Story II: CSU’s cross-state conference rival Air Force continues its impressive resurgence under first-year coach Troy Calhoun. With their 20-12 win over Wyoming, the Falcons -- 8-15 over the past two seasons -- improved to 6-2 overall and 5-1 in the Mountain West. They’re going to need BYU to slip up a couple of times to win the conference, but they should at least be in line for their first bowl bid since 2002.

Feel Good Story III: Tulane, a program that's had to smile about since Hurricane Katrina ravaged their town two years ago, has one heck of a running back on its hands. Saturday against SMU, Matt Forte produced his second 300-yard game of the season, this time bursting for a staggering 342 yards on 38 carries in an overtime victory, Tulane's second of the season.

Over his past five games, Forte has run for 200 or more yards in four of them. No word on whether the Saints will start borrowing him on Sundays.
posted by Stewart Mandel | View comments | Add a comment
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